Japanese-Style Gardens Played Key Role in Issei Life

    Japanese-Style Gardens Played Key Role in Issei Life

    By Corinne Kennedy
    NAP Contributor

    Japanese immigrants (Issei) to the Pacific Northwest initially found migratory work in our region’s seasonal, extractive economy, laboring on railroads, in lumber camps, Alaska canneries, and Pacific Northwest hop farms. The Issei and their American-born children (Nisei) later found more settled work in agriculture, notably growing vegetables and berries, and in running small businesses including laundries, restaurants, and small stores and hotels especially those located in their area’s Japantowns (Nihonmachi). Less well-known or documented is their establishment of horticulturally-related businesses and creation of Japanese-style gardens. These gardens were built not only to promote their businesses but also to express the creators’ cultural heritage and to provide settings for community gatherings. These were significant contributions to the Japanese American community and to the development of Pacific Northwest horticulture, garden design, and public parks.

    Butoh performed on the Soribashi red arched bridge in Kubota Garden

    What follows are the stories of a small sampling of those businesses (landscaping companies, plant nurseries, and greenhouses), the individuals and families who operated them, and the Japanese-style gardens they created. In addition, I discuss two other businesses (a farm and a restaurant), whose owners also created significant Japanese-style gardens.

    Portrait of Fujitaro Kubota

    Landscape Contractors/Gardeners:

    The list below includes the three Japanese American landscape contractors chosen by garden designer Jūki Iida to build the Seattle Japanese Garden (1959-1960). Their names are listed on a poster displayed this month on the bulletin board in the Garden’s entry courtyard. In recognition of Asian American Native Hawai’ian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, the poster celebrates many of the Asian Americans involved in the Garden’s beginnings. It is also posted on the Resources page of the Seattle Japanese Garden website.

    ●Richard Yamasaki (1921-2008)
    ●William Yorozu (1914-2006)
    ●Kazuo Ishimitsu (1929-2018)
    ●Sadamu Ishimitsu (died 1970)
    ●Fujitaro Kubota (1880-1973) and son Tom
    ●Kubota (1917-2004): Kubota Gardening Company and Kubota Garden

    Fujitaro Kubota pruning in one of his trees on his property Photos courtesy of the Kubota Garden

    Fuijtaro Kubota (1880-1973) was the most well-known Issei owner of a landscaping business in the region and Kubota Garden is likely one of the most well-preserved U.S. examples of an early Japanese-style garden built by an immigrant. Fujitaro immigrated to the U.S. from Japan in 1906, and prior to World War I, worked in a sawmill and on a farm. He also managed hotels and apartment buildings. Later, he worked for friends in the gardening business before establishing the Kubota Gardening Company in 1923.

    Fujitaro initially purchased five acres of South Seattle swampland for his home and business. Since it was illegal for Japanese immigrants, (who were not eligible for citizenship) to own land, the property was purchased in the name of a friend’s Nisei son.

    Eventually the property was transferred to his American-born oldest son, Takeshi. Over the years, additional parcels were purchased and the property expanded to 20 acres. The family grew plants there for their business, and Fujitaro created a Japanese-style display garden. Although it was not a public garden, it served as a gathering place for the Japanese American community. Neighbors and people not of Japanese descent were also welcomed.

    Fujitaro Kubota working at Seattle University campus Photo courtesy of Densho

    In 1942, U.S. Executive Order 9066 mandated the evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. The Kubota family was incarcerated at the Minidoka camp in Idaho, where Fujitaro oversaw the camp grounds. His second son Tom, who served in U.S. Military Intelligence, was not incarcerated.

    During the war years, the City of Seattle attempted to repossess the Kubota property but was ultimately unsuccessful. The house was rented and maintained but the garden was not. After the Kubota family’s return to Seattle, repairing it took nearly four years of intensive labor. During this period, Fujitaro was able to rebuild his landscaping business and in the process, transformed the large property into a drive-through nursery/garden. Clients could view his designs and choose plants for their own gardens.

    Eventually, Kubota focused his business efforts on garden design and construction rather than maintenance. His designs adapted Japanese design principles to American culture, rather than recreating traditional Japanese gardens. Fujitaro and his son Tom built gardens for institutions, companies, and private residences including the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Seattle University’s campus, the Rainier Club, The Seattle Times property, Seattle Center, and the Blethyn residence. As a consultant, he also provided a cost estimate for the creation of the Seattle Japanese Garden.

    After Fujitaro’s death in 1973, Tom maintained the landscaping business but once again the garden declined, in part due to changing economic conditions and developmental pressures. Designated a Seattle landmark in 1981, the property was sold to the City of Seattle in 1987. It then opened as a public park and is maintained by Seattle Parks and Recreation and the Kubota Garden Foundation. It is popular and beloved by visitors who pay no admission charge.